Gotham Diary:
Above Average
4 April 2017

Tuesday 4th

Ever since climbing aboard the Internet, it seems, I’ve been trying to figure out Tyler Cowen. He is certainly not a sympathetic figure, but neither is he altogether antipathetic. I can’t seem to get a grip on his economic ideas, mostly because I have no training but also because I think that most economic training is nonsense, productive of nothing but words sprayed on a page. The only thing that I really know about Cowen is that he travels a lot and is always in search of good local restaurants.

In a recent Vox interview with Ezra Klein, in fact, Cowen is shown holding chopsticks, with seven dishes of various sizes on the table behind him. Despite the chopsticks, despite the Chinese cuisine, the image is adamantly masculine. Cowen’s manliness is a thick thread that runs through everything he writes — his voice is bright with the impatience that comes of having to explain things over and over again — and I do not think that there is anything compensatory about it. Nor misogynist. If Cowen’s positions might be unhelpful to women and to others traditionally unwelcome at the high tables of power, that is incidental. Cowen would probably be the first man to stand up and welcome a woman who demonstrated the capacity to act with his manly assurance.

In the interview, Klein asked Cowen for quick comments about a slew of issues. NATO, guaranteed income, the war on drugs. I can’t say that I disagreed with much of what he said. My objections were all tonal, because I, of course, am not a manly man — I’m too skeptical about the status quo, but also too optimistic about improving on it. Early on, Cowen quipped, “I feel we need to put up a big sign on this country that says, ‘We’re for immigrants who really want to work and create’.” I shuddered with irritation, because putting “work” and “create” in the same clause makes hash of both. I wonder why he did not simply say, “… who really want to compete.”

Later, there was an even more abrasive passage.

I do believe America is an exceptional nation and should think of itself as such. And this norm weakening is one of my great worries about this current time. If you ask what makes America exceptional, it’s the embedded mix of religiosity and the high status we’re willing to give to businessmen. Our belief that our way of life is best, which of course it isn’t, but we believe it, and that’s overall a good thing. And this Puritan notion that there are individual life projects and it’s your highest calling to pursue them. And we both live by this, even though neither of us is Protestant. And I think that combination is just fantastic, though dangerous too.

At two points, Cowen undercuts himself, first when he says that our way of life isn’t the best, and then when he finds the “combination” — of what, I’m not exactly sure — dangerous. What does he really mean? That it’s a good thing to believe in an illusion — if the illusion is the particular one that we believe in? But what dispirits me far more is Cowen’s explicit belief that religiosity and businessmen are what make America exceptional. I wonder how many women, especially educated women, would agree. How many women would jump out of bed every morning with enthusiasm for prioritizing catechism and the cash register?

My own view is that America is exceptional because there used to be so much room in its thinly-populated wilderness for anti-social European misfits. I believe that American exceptionalism is a disorder from which the nation is far from recovering.


Thinking very hard, for various reasons, about feminism, I more and more want to bury the term in scare quotes and declare that we simply don’t know what it refers to. It seems more profitable to consider what feminism isn’t, what its constellation of ideas does not include. The first thing that comes to mind is competition.

In other entries, I’ve argued that pure capitalism is very important to a healthy economic life, but only in small doses and special cases. There is a vital interlacing between capitalism and innovation that keeps the economic edge sharp. But only the edge. Mature businesses do not thrive in capitalist excitement. That’s why I argue for more not-for-profit business organizations. Please tell me what is competitive, in a good way, about the supply of electric power. You can’t. The competition — the innovation, funded by capitalist speculation — was settled long ago, while Thomas Edison was still alive. Quick readers will note that I have folded “competition” into the captialist-innovation matrix. And that is indeed where I think it belongs.

The worst thing about prioritizing competition is the laziness that it encourages. I’m not being paradoxical. Competition, with its markers and its metrics, reduces the complications of personal performance to a few standard measurements. Did the tenor hit the high notes? That’s a much easier criterion to agree on than the far more important issue of a singer’s musicality. But the high notes are exceptional; most of the time, the singer is concerned not with freakish display but with tying ordinary notes together either tightly or loosely, as taste dictates. Similarly, there is nothing in genuine scholastic achievement that can be measured. Testing creates a wholly bogus region of accomplishment. Judgments of academic excellence are subject to dispute, a necessary inconvenience. Examinations sidestep the problem, but to no truly constructive purpose.

And as to commerce, it is no longer doubtable that the objective of every successful business is to narrow the field of competition to the vanishing point.

The humanist objection to the excessive emphasis on competition is that most people are insulted by it. Most people are not competitors. Most people are, by definition, close to mediocre. Most people need some kind of help from other people. Most of all, they need respect for their ordinariness. I can see that Tyler Cowen wants an America that, like Lake Wobegon, is above-average.

What this exercise teaches me is that feminism is not so much about allowing women to compete and excel as it is about creating a thriving society of dignified individuals.

More anon.